The Child Maintenance Service is changing and it matters
At single parents’ charity Gingerbread, we’re campaigning to ensure the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) is fit for purpose for the UK’s two million single parent families. Launched in September 2016, our campaign Maintenance Matters calls for a fairer charging system and zero-tolerance on non-payment of child maintenance.
Today, there are 3.1 million children from single parent families. Single parents do a brilliant job juggling work and family life, often under stress and financial pressures. When parents live apart, they both have a responsibility to financially support their child so they have an adequate standard of living. This support, known as child maintenance, is vital for a child’s well-being. Children living in single parent families are almost twice at risk of poverty compared to children in coupled families. So government cuts to welfare, and the rise in living costs means that maintenance matters even more.
The child maintenance system is changing. Between 2015 and 2018, the previous, much criticised Child Support Agency (CSA) is being shut down. This means that parents still with the CSA must decide whether to use the new CMS in the future, or make their own child maintenance arrangements instead.
The new Child Maintenance Service (CMS) is there to help parents financially support their children. When parents don’t pay, the CMS can step in to help. But despite good intentions, the service in its current state is simply not working.
The CMS is actively pushing parents to come to a family based arrangements (FBAs), where child maintenance is voluntarily agreed. This can work for some, but the reality is that for many others, it can be hard to achieve. Imagine going through a difficult break up then having to negotiate directly with your ex-partner? Not easy. In fact, for many, it can prove impossible to arrive at a financial agreement that’s fair, reflects a child’s ongoing needs, and which is paid in full every month.
So if a FBA isn’t working, single parents will need to pay a £20 application fee to then access the CMS (domestic violence survivors are exempt…if they can prove it). Once a calculation has been made, the system is set up to encourage parents to transfer the money due between themselves (called ‘Direct Pay’). This is done by giving the final choice about ‘Direct Pay’ to the ‘paying’ parent – against a backdrop where collection fees (20 per cent for the paying parent and 4 per cent for the receiving parent) are charged if the CMS has to collect the money. One concern is that ‘Direct Pay’ arrangements can put survivors of domestic violence at risk. We launched the Maintenance Matters campaign alongside Women’s’ Aid to highlight this very important point.
Another problem can be that the maintenance calculated by the CMS does not accurately reflect the paying parents’ true income. Maintenance Matters calls for avoidance of maintenance to be treated in the same way as tax evasion, and for the government to work with HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) to close loopholes that allow parents to avoid payments or to pay less than they should.
If payments aren’t made via Direct Pay, the CMS can step in and institute a ‘Collect and pay’ arrangement, where they collect the money from the paying parent and pay it to the single parent. But this comes at a price – not just to the ‘paying parents’ who are penalised for non-payment, but also to the ‘receiving’ parents who have suffered the loss. Fair? We don’t think so. That’s why Maintenance Matters is calling for a fairer charging system, one that puts children first, and where receiving parents are not punished for the other parent’s failure to pay.
Another persistent issue affecting both the CSA and CMS has been the lack of concerted action to pursue non-payers and collect outstanding child maintenance debts. Gingerbread drew attention to the problem in a recent report ‘Missing Maintenance’ and, with a Freedom of Information Request (FOI), we were able to reveal the millions of unpaid child maintenance owed to parents across the country. Staggering amounts of maintenance arrears have gone uncollected. We’re asking supporters to email their MP and call on them to stand up for single parent families and press for zero tolerance of non-payment.
Now, over 1,000 people have taken our online action, and MPs from across the country have pledged support for the campaign. This is a fantastic step forward, enabling us to raise this issue in parliament and give single parents a platform to share their experiences of child maintenance.
Single parents Callie and Kim joined us in parliament last week to give evidence to a new Work and Pension Committee’s inquiry on the new Child Maintenance Service. Callie and Kim spoke for many in describing the difficulties they have faced in trying to secure maintenance. Our Senior Policy Advisor Janet Allbeson also gave evidence. You can view Gingerbread’s written evidence to the inquiry here.
The campaign is building momentum, but we’ve got to keep it up. We’re giving single parents an opportunity to share their story of trying to secure child maintenance by writing a campaign blog. We are also listening to the experiences of our members in using the new CMS. These experiences have already been used in recent evidence to a major government review of the new charging system, which is due to report early next year. You can read the evidence summary we submitted to this government review on the charging system here.
So there’s a lot going on, but we’re making single parents’ voices heard. If you’d like to keep updated with Maintenance Matters and find out ways to get involved, please join our campaign e-news. Together, we can build a society that’s fair and just for all single parent families.